Wednesday, February 22, 2012

State of the unions

There comes a point in every debate where both parties become wrong; it’s part of what makes American politics great, or at least entertaining. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus* and saw Atlanta burn during the Civil War.** Like William Sherman, Lincoln’s firebug general, the University of Michigan’s “Students Against GSRA Unionization” and their allies began to march stubbornly in that familiar direction Wednesday when the State Senate passed a bill to define Graduate Student Research Assistants as students – and therefore unable to unionize – for all posterity. SB 971 now moves on to the House of Representatives and we safely enter that all-to-typical political territory where both sides of an issue sides start making missteps.

*Only in Maryland

The bill would put to rest an argument that has been brewing since the Graduate Employees Organization, a union on campus that represents teaching assistants, among others, began efforts to absorb GSRAs (and the dues that comes with them) in last year. In what has (unsurprisingly) turned into a rather bitter fight, the bill would trump earlier Board of Regents ruling and essentially end the GEO’s hope of assimilating us innocent researchers in a gluttonous quest to broaden its reaches to the furthest edges of campus.

If you can’t tell from the previous sentence, I think the GEO would be the confederacy in this whole convoluted analogy. GSRA’s at the University of Michigan don't need a union - especially a compulsory one. Stipend and benefits are extremely competitive,* the administration is open and responsive, and I don’t see my friends and colleagues suffering under the thumb of ruthless principal investigators. By most measures, this is a pretty transparent power (and money) grab by the GEO.

*And, at least for engineers, guaranteed for five years.

Nevertheless, even if we don’t need a union now, there is absolutely no reason we should give up our right to form one later – or compromise the rights of students elsewhere in the state* to do the same. It is pathetically naïve to assume that just because relations between GSRAs, professors, and administration are tranquil now, they will remain so forever. As policies and expectations change, the ability to collectively bargain could become an asset for graduate students. To advocate such a casual dismissal of our rights is not only foolish, but indicates an absurd level of trust in our dear leaders.

*Don’t forget, this would be a state law, affecting universities and colleges across Michigan, not just UM.

Regardless of university faculty and administration, changes may be coming to graduate education anywa. The National Academies of Science has released two reports entitled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” that examine the future of science education in America. The second report has the subtitle “Rapidly approaching category 5.” Clearly, they do not think everything is hunky-dory in Collegeland, USA. While the reports do not specifically call for changes that would drastically affect GSRAs, they do acknowledge significant shortcomings in our post-secondary education and research system and, more importantly, serve as a reminder that we must be prepared for change in at least some capacity. As critical stakeholders in this whole university education and research thing, GSRAs need a seat at the table if/when these issues are discussed. It’s not inconceivable that the best way to achieve that would be through unionization.

Throughout all this, there is still no compelling reason for GSRAs to unionize. However, if SAGU really has the best interests of GSRAs at heart, they need to consider the long-term ramifications of their actions. Sacrificing the rights of future students to serve present needs, makes about as much sense as torching Atlanta. Even if Abraham Lincoln had to break a few eggs to make an omelet, SAGU and its allies are making one heck of a mess in the kitchen.


  1. I disagree with your conclusion, but you make some valid points. I'd like to remind you of something, however. All faculty were, at some point or another, GSRAs who worked their ways toward a Ph.D. under other faculty members. This works in much the same way as all parents were at one point children. It seems conceivable then that as our parents have a pretty good feel for what is good for us (particularly when we are very young), our faculty mentors may as well know what is good for us as GSRAs... and for that matter, most faculty were GSRAs far more recently than most parents were children, so I am sure they remember what it was like. Just a side note.

  2. Joe, I think you make valid points too. In fact, this is the only criticism of SB 971 I've seen so far that doesn't resort to outright lies and ad hominem attacks. But here are some counterpoints:

    1. Your main concern is that this bill will prevent unionization in the future, should that ever become necessary. But the law already prohibited us from unionizing. SB 971 just makes that more clear. Further, the political composition of MERC is likely to change to an anti-union bias in the summer. If this hearing had lasted until then, it is likely MERC would've ruled against GEO. Fickle, right?

    2. SB 971 prevents GEO from forming a compulsory union under PERA (Public Employee Relations Act), but doesn't prevent the University from voluntarily recognizing a union. We could not be forced to join and pay dues however. Given the current composition of the Board of Regents, I doubt they'd be opposed to a voluntary union. And I think this arrangement is a good compromise.

    3. The political climate of Michigan will certainly change in years to come. Along with that could come changes in law, including Right-to-Work. PERA could change too.

    Finally, here's something to chew on: Public Employees are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, i.e. the contents of your emails on Government (read: CAEN) computers can be requested under FOIA. Students, on the other hand, are covered by FERPA (Federal Education Rights Protection Act). As it stands, FERPA trumps FOIA. But isn't the whole legal argument a matter of whether we are employees *OR* students? Which law would we be subject to? Think about the implications for intellectual property.

  3. Oops, FAMILY educational rights and PRIVACY act*

  4. Long time listener, first time caller... just kidding...

    Anyhow, you bring up a good point in that there are intellectual property implications tied up in the student versus employee debate. Personally, I am opposed to the unionization of GSRA's, but if the argument is that GSRA's are "students" and not "employees", the same should apply to our intellectual property rights while affiliated with the University.

    I am by no means an expert in this area, but my understanding is that current undergraduate students at the University of Michigan own most, if not all of the intellectual property that they produce since they are classified as "students." However, as a GSRA, the University considers me an "employee" in this regard and lays claim to a large portion of any IP that I may generate in my time here. The University should not be able to pick and choose when I am considered to be a "student" versus an "employee" based on what is most convenient (or dare I say, profitable) at the time.


    1. Welcome to the intractable world of legal semantics. Nobody can deny we are students, since we're enrolled in degree programs. But we have come to a point where a hard line must legally be drawn--are we or are we not employees under PERA? This is an election year, so Republicans have jumped at the opportunity to be anti-union. The Regents have jumped at the opportunity to be pro-union. We all use political machines to our advantage, but we certainly didn't have the opportunity to edit the proposed legislation. However the hard line is drawn, it'll come with a set of consequences that both sides may dislike. That's what happens when laws are linked to one another at (sometimes tenuous) semantic points.


Keep it civil.